Tackling The Stress of Feeding Decisions
One of the most difficult aspects of motherhood is figuring out how to feed your baby. As a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and perinatal psychiatry, feeding is one of the areas where I see my patients struggle the most. It’s not just the logistics of figuring out a schedule that works or finding the right method for you and your baby, either—it’s also the expectations and judgements about feeding.
Even the most well intentioned new parents can get caught in the trap of social expectations and pressure. Our culture has very strong feelings about what feeding is supposed to look like. It’s common to bump up against these expectations in your partner, your parents/in-laws, and your friends. Even in yourself! Moreover, if you have a type A personality or struggle with perfectionism, the metrics of feeding, like milk supply and baby’s weight gain, can start to feel like a weekly report card.
Despite all of this, for many of my patients, it’s a surprise when breastfeeding just doesn’t work in the way they might have imagined it was supposed to go (easy, breezy, and second nature). Our culture doesn’t do a great job of preparing mothers for just how much pressure comes with this aspect of parenting. And it’s all too common to blame yourself when feeding isn’t going well. Making decisions about how to feed your baby are emotionally trying for all of these reasons. I am here to remind you that the best feeding relationship is exactly that: a responsive relationship between parent and baby that takes into account the unique situations of both parties.
Given the just how fraught these decisions can be and the psychological toll they can take on a new parent, below I’m sharing some coping strategies that you can use.
Avoid Extreme Thinking
Black and white thinking occurs when your mind immediately goes to “all or nothing” thoughts. For example, as you supplement or switch to formula, you might say to yourself: "Breastfeeding isn’t working out, so I’ve failed as a parent." In times of stress (like having an infant that you’re trying to keep alive!) it’s easy for our minds to slip into black and white thinking. Try to catch yourself when these thoughts come up, and remind yourself when you are discounting reality: there are many healthy ways to feed your baby.
It’s powerful to recognize ahead of time that feeding—whether it's through the breast, pumping, or formula—is, at best, a fraught process. You are discovering so much about this new little human being, and the learning curve is steep in the best of times. Instead of getting caught up in perfectionism or trying to “get it right”, focus on compassion and flexibility for yourself and your baby.
Grieve The Changes
It’s okay to grieve the loss of an exclusive breastfeeding relationship if it’s not in the cards for you and your baby. There are many reasons why this could be the case—medical, situational, or otherwise. Many of my patients are surprised at the sadness they feel when they let go of breastfeeding because they had not realized how much they idealized this aspect of parenthood. One effective way to let go of guilt or shame about a situation that did not go as planned is to give yourself permission to feel the hard feelings, including sadness or even anger.
Make Your Own Wins
Instead of solely focusing on hyper-specific goals (exclusive breastfeeding for 12 months or never using a bottle), align your infant feeding plan with your values. While goals are tangible outcomes that we can check off a list, values are qualities that we can embody, whether or not we reach our goals. So, for example, think about what values you want to bring to your feeding relationship with your baby: Curiosity? Compassion? Love? You can live those values no matter how you feed your baby!
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin MD is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform focused exclusively on women’s emotional well-being.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.